John Nathan

Amazon's 'Hunters' hinders our efforts to tell the story of the Shoah

A gruesome game of human chess that is depicted as having taken place at Auschwitz is pure fiction - while the show presents itself as a 'true story'

February 28, 2020 12:46

The most eye-catching new offering on Amazon’s Prime streaming service is Hunters, starring Al Pacino as Meyer Offerman, a Talmud-quoting Jewish Holocaust survivor-turned-Nazi hunter.

It has all the hallmarks of a fun watch. Think Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds but with cooler clothes. Set mostly in 1970s New York, Hunters drips with style nostalgia. The sideburns, wide collars and flares could be straight out of Pacino’s 1973 cop movie Serpico. And in episode three there is a La La Land-like dance sequence set on a summer’s day on Coney Island to the Bee Gees’ hit Stayin’ Alive.

Yet Jewish groups have complained. The problem? The Auschwitz scenes. In flashback they depict sadistic Nazi cruelty at the camp. Among the most distressing is a chess game convened by a camp officer, the pieces for which are represented by inmates — naked for white; dressed (in Auschwitz stripes) for black. Each time a piece is taken, a prisoner on the board, which is made of squares cut into grass, is forced to kill another. The bodies line up along the margins of the killing field like a chess game’s redundant pieces. 

There are also other depictions of Nazi sadism in the show. Each is filmed with convincing realism and in muted colour. Not quite the monochrome of Schindler’s List, but enough to convey how the victims have been drained of life. 

Yet the chess game is fiction. There are many real examples of Nazi sadism of course, but here the invention of cruelty has led the Auschwitz Memorial charity, which maintains the camp as a historic site, to label the show “dangerous foolishness”.

To develop their point, it is not just that making stuff up about what happened in the camps is deeply dodgy. More problematic is that because this show presents itself as being based on a true story (there were Nazi hunters in the 70s, though they didn’t execute them like this crew) it surely only adds to the revisionism of Holocaust deniers.

“See how Jews build the myth of the Holocaust?”, they might say of the show’s creator David Weil, himself the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.

For the moment let us put aside the doublethink of Weil’s defence. The real problem here is one of tone. In Hunters, atrocity abuts the playful cartoonish aesthetic of grind-house cinema. Offerman’s team of assassins includes the striking Roxy who hails from a civil rights background and sports an afro hair-do. There is also a pastiche of a failing actor called Lonny Flash, an ageing Jewish couple who are weapons experts and former MI6 agent Sister Harriet, a nun.

Granted, the excellent Pacino channels something of his (actually terrific) Shylock as the Jew looking for payback. But the result is something like Scooby Doo meets the Holocaust.

The disconnect from history that is needed to make these kind of decisions is nothing new. Remember the wave of “Nazi chic” in Asia? Examples include a Hitler-themed anniversary celebrations in a Taiwan school, the South Korean girl group in Nazi garb and Nazi-themed bars and restaurants in Indonesia and elsewhere. 

But here the disconnect is Jewish. Weil is reportedly “a scholar of the Holocaust”, which is presumably why the depictions of it are so convincing. But as reported in Variety, his defence is mind-bending. The fictional chess scene, he argues, is to “most powerfully counteract the revisionist showcasing the most extreme — and representationally truthful — sadism that Nazis perpetrated against Jews and other victims.”

So, to correct a fiction, he has opted to create another. Presumably the facts themselves are not powerful enough.

February 28, 2020 12:46

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